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The Master: The extraordinary life of Zhuang Zhou sits halfway between fable and philosophy

Welcome to China in the fifth century BCE, a colorful, violent, unstable world into which Zhuang is born. Here royals raise huge armies, constantly waging wars against one another. They have slaves, and concubines. Gold is everywhere. And so is hunger. Born rich and entitled, Zhuang learns to refuse any official function. His travels bring him closer to ordinary people, from whom he learns how to live a simple and useful life. This is how he will become one of the greatest Chinese philosophers who gave his name to his legendary book, the Zhuangzi, one of the two foundational texts of Taoism—a magnificent procession of lively stories in which we meet dwarfs, virtuous bandits, butchers, powerful lords in their castles, turtles, charming concubines, and false sages. In this remarkable bildungsroman, award-winning French novelist Patrick Rambaud spins out the extraordinary life of Zhuang Zhou—a poetic, cruel, and often humorous tale, halfway between fable and philosophy.
the master

© The Master /

May 28, 2023 03:13 EDT

‘It was twenty-five centuries ago in the land of Song, between the Yellow River and the River Huai: Zhuang Zhou was born without a cry with his eyes wide open.’

Zhuang led a meditative, pastoral life until he turned thirty. Then everything turned upside down. For a long time, Baron Qiu-Chu had been provoking the silent anger of the lords of Song, who blamed him for selling the country to the King of Qi. Rebellion was in the air. The baron knew it and took elaborate precautions. Wild animals would alert him in his antechamber if an intruder came prowling at night. And when he hosted a gala banquet for his vassals in the province to convince them of the efficacy of his management, he had them searched at the entrance and they were made to leave their weapons with the palace guards. 

Duke Cheng, the angriest one, was seated next to the baron. As soon as the fish were served, he plunged his hand into the belly of his own fish, pulled a dagger out of it and planted it in the baron’s heart. He died with his cheek in the sauce and his eyes blank. Following the established practice of palace coups, Cheng ascended to the throne quite smoothly, and everyone at the court was pleased since most of the dignitaries retained their attributions. They examined together the best way of loosening the grip Qi had on the country and regaining real autonomy without offending their protector, King Min.

While Chou continued to enjoy his position and his fortune, the threat of approaching old age worried him. He summoned his elder son. Zhuang could not refuse him. So one morning, without the slightest feeling of nostalgia, he entered the great house where he’d lived as a child. Clothed as he was in a wildcat-skin cloak, with his bonnet pulled low on his face, he looked so out of place that despite his name the doormen took him for a peddler and were reluctant to let him in. 

The family residence had been repainted, embellished and enlarged. Reclining on a mat, his father was waiting for him at the end of a hall with marble columns and red-and-gold ceiling. With a skinny hand full of brown spots, he was stroking his beard as thin and translucent as the slaver of a salangane swallow. Two young women were fanning him. In one corner, seers and apothecaries were preparing herbal potions and fumigants, drowning the room in smoke as dense as autumn fog in the hills. Zhuang sat on the floor and was forced to inhale the fumes which made him cough. In a drawling voice, the patriarch said:

‘I’m getting old . . .’

‘Like all that surrounds us, Father.’

‘This house got younger, not I.’

‘Objects can be fixed up better than men, that’s why they survive us.’

‘Zhuang, by force of circumstance you have become my elder son. I am rich and you are poor.’

‘Poor? Not at all! I live in the hills and I am at peace there.’

‘You lack ambition . . .’

‘I certainly hope so!’

‘You pig-headed boy! I have plans for you.’

‘I fear them, Father.’ ‘You are thirty years old, and you must marry to respect our traditions.’

‘Now, now! You have three other sons from your new wives.’

‘They’re too young to inherit from our ancestors. And then, you need an official wife.’

‘Father, I know people look down on unmarried men, and one who spurns courtesans is called a lunatic, but I live in perfect harmony with Xing and Ching, the girls you offered me years ago to keep me company on a trip.’

‘That does not fit your rank any more.’

‘What rank?’

‘Get married to please your ancestors, give them a son who will continue the family line.’

‘What for?’ thought Zhuang. He had abandoned all beliefs and no longer understood the benefits of rites. Of what use were those ancestors who swung on their tablets at the first breeze? A means of prolonging oneself—a puerile way of feeling immortal. Zhuang fell silent and listened to his father.

‘You know Yee Chen,’ he said as if he were changing the subject.

‘No, Father.’

‘That’s not surprising, you barely know what’s happening in the palace any more.’

‘There are a thousand more exciting lives in the forest.’

‘You young fool! Yee Chen has a solid fortune.’

‘Whom did he steal it from?’

‘From no one, you insolent idiot! He earned every shilling of it in the salt industry and the cattle business. He does whatever he wants in the palace and besides, he built a mansion for himself next to Duke Cheng’s.’

‘I imagine he’s surrounded by flatterers.’

‘He can’t stand them—in fact, he scorns them.’

‘Well, he’s right to beware.’

‘I spoke to him about you,’ Chou went on.

‘Because I’m not a courtier?’

‘Exactly! That’s what he appreciates.’

‘Why do you want me to go to his palace for?’

‘To marry his daughter.’


‘Stop posturing! You can’t spend the rest of your life supervising lacquers!’

‘That knowledge is just as noble as any other.’

‘Think of the alliance of our two families . . .’

‘Are you sure this young woman isn’t a fox who wants to bewitch me?’

‘Now you believe in legends—all of a sudden?’

‘What’s her name?’

‘Chao Yun—Morning Cloud. She’s fifteen.’

She looked like the white jade figurine of the Goddess of Mercy he had admired in one of the palace temples. Slender, delicate and fragile, she kept her eyes lowered in her oval face, even when she burst out laughing with her sisters or serving women and her cheeks flushed. Chao Yun was timeless. Zhuang imagined she had always existed, like Heaven and Earth. When she finally consented to raise her eyes to him, he noticed her gentle, far-off gaze; he could sense her vulnerability and that touched him. ‘I’ll protect you from snakes,’ he vowed to her.

[The Translators: Nicole Ball and David Ball] Together or separately, David and Nicole Ball have translated some twenty books from French, several of them for Seagull. Nicole also translates from English to French, most recently Monk! Youssef Daoudi’s graphic biography of Thelonius Monk. David has won two major prizes for his translations; his most recent books are Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Coma Crossing: Collected Poems and Léon Werth Deposition, 1940-1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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